Essentials: Jess ETA Finds His Voice On ‘Playing With Fire’
His finest offering so far
His finest offering so far
In 2021, Nigerian singer Jess ETA emerged victorious as the winner of the sophomore edition of Audiomack’s Rising Star Challenge, beating out 299 other artists from around Africa who wished to lay claim to the prize. Following that euphoric high, he’s followed up with a smattering of snazzy Pop singles including “Skata,” and “Body On Fire” featuring BNXN and Inci. Now the singer has shared his sophomore EP titled ‘Playing With Fire,’ an 11-track offering that finds him old in Afropop, RnB and splotches of Dancehall and Soul Music into a unique concoction of escapist sounds.
Over the 11-track offering, Jess ETA offers a coming-of-age body of work that showcases his growth since his 2020 debut EP ‘Balance.’ Through the songs, you can almost trace the arc of a musician shedding his past sound, finding his voice and making more resonant dynamic music. While Jess’ voice on this project is more refined and sturdy, he’s still experimenting — shuffling primarily between the thrumming percussion of Afrobeats and the syrupy melodies of R&B. The project’s mood spans themes such as love, loss and longing, and is moonlighted by the typical jovial themes that are characteristic of archetypal Afropop records.
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From the opening track “Neon”, it’s immediately obvious that Jess ETA has grown since his last project in 2020. Over the song’s catchy production, he lays out his syrupy vocals against a backdrop of Classical and Soul influences. Frya’s effort on the track is electrifying and palpable, her powerful vocals percolate through the track imbuing it with a poignant essence. From a musical standpoint, the record is a laudable work of art, but upon close inspection, his lyrics are out of depth.
The disparity between his sonic ingenuity and his lyrical prowess on this track is almost comparable to North and South. The whole track is set up for Jess to deliver a heartfelt story or message, instead, he remains closed off and relies on ambiguous phrases to tell his story. This precedent becomes a recurring motif that hides in the shadows and pops up in select times. Like on “Raging” where he populates the infectious House beat with foggy lyrics that narrowly convey the depth of his emotions.
His songwriting in general however, is dazzling across the project. His strongest points both lyrically and sonically occur on the R&B records on the record. “Pick Me Apart” is one of those almost-flawless tracks. Over erupting bass riffs, his voice contorts as he traverses a range of emotions expressing heartbreak. His tone matches his words, the longing in his voice is palpable as he sings “Pick me apart, tear me to pieces, pain is the price to pay for falling for you”. On “Easy”, another R&B track, he shines dazzlingly bright. It’s hard to spotlight the standout feature on this record as every single element aligns to form a majestic romantic ode. His message on this song is both concise and vivid: it’s hard loving you, but I do. On “Lay It Down” he follows a similar arc, delivering a breathtaking performance.
The project is replete with guest artists, from Abuja’s Psycho YP to BNXN, but his brightest collaborative efforts are his tracks with Azanti and Psycho YP. The ease with which they bounce off each other’s energy is almost unbelievable. On “Dangerous”, he taps Azanti for a mid tempo number which finds the pair firing off lines about an untrustworthy lover. Their synergy is so sleek with each one picking up where the other leaves off.
On the Psycho YP-assisted “Paralyzed”, the rapper steals the spotlight with ease, as he flecks the beat with his gritty delivery. However, the pair still make a fared match as they bounce off each other’s palpable energy. While Jess’ finest points occur on the R&B tracks on the project, with the Afropop numbers, he shows that he’s capable to play to different tunes, regardless of the challenge. The Afropop records see him take respites from grappling with the weighty topics of heartbreak and uncertainty, and instead delivers archetypal impressionistic Afropop motifs.
On “Below”, he displays this in earnest. The record does not aim for anything ambitious, he simply lets loose and lances the beat with jovial carefree lines. With “Below”, Jess shows that he has Afrobeats in his DNA. His flows, adlibs and syncopations all lend themselves to this premise. The highlight of the track occurs over the hook when he coolly sings “As we dey konko below, e dey freak my choco milo”.
‘Playing With Fire’ may seem dynamic but it never feels restless. As Jess traverses a convoluted arc, experimenting with an assortment of sounds, he remains collected, anchoring the eclectic project with the familiar themes of love, attraction and heartbreak. While the singer never gets too deep or vulnerable, he’s able to balance this out with irresistibly compelling music and a mutating sound that ensures that there’s no dull moment through the project’s 30-minute run time.
Stream ‘Playing With Fire’ here.
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